Meet the Consultant: Curator Deborah Cullen

To shape the upcoming 2017 Vilcek Prizes for Fine Arts, we enlisted the help of curator Deborah Cullen. Drawing on her experience working with immigrant and emerging artists, Deborah helped us set the parameters for the prizes, and recommended jurors, specialists in the arts with expertise in various media and specialties. 

Deborah’s own specialty is in modern and contemporary Caribbean, Latino, and African-American visual artists, with an additional focus on performance and printmaking. She earned her Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a dissertation on Jamaican American printmaker Robert Blackburn. Deborah worked for Robert when she first arrived in New York City in 1983, and to this day, she cites him as her “most important mentor.”

“Printmaking workshops are by nature collaborative, but Bob welcomed and encouraged artists from around the world,” she says. “He fostered a multicultural, accepting, cross-pollinating environment well before that was in vogue.”

Afterwards, for fifteen years, Deborah worked at El Museo del Barrio, a New York-based institute with a focus on the work of Puerto Rican, Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean artists, where she eventually served as director of curatorial programs. It was there where she honed her expertise in presenting immigrant artists, who come from a myriad of circumstances, to American audiences: “It was important to try to support, collect, and provide opportunities to present their work, while also working to contextualize it both ‘here and there,’” she says. 

It was also a chance to learn, and be moved by, the immigrant experience. “Artworks can provide windows,” Deborah says. “It can help us learn about history and political events, social practices, and cultural norms. Art can show us what immigration has provided but also taken away.” 

She currently serves as the director and chief curator of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, where she guides graduate students as they organize and curate programs in the space. The gallery aims to be not only an exhibition space, but a laboratory and forum as well, that encourages diverse approaches to the arts.

Deborah is looking forward to reviewing the applications for the 2017 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Fine Arts this summer. (Don’t forget: Applications are due by 5PM EDT, June 10!) Applicants do not have to engage their immigrant experience or their cultural background in their works, but they should demonstrate both maturity and potential growth. “I’m looking for artists that have already developed their work but still have the capacity to do so much more,” says Deb. “I’m looking for artists who can be influencers.”

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